Information Foraging – The Internet Landscape

Much of the exchange between pet owner and vet is that of information. In some ways a vet is your guide through the maze of medical information, and a translator, deciphering the medical jargon, and making it relevant to your situation.  Information resources are human, electronic or books and journals..

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The Changing Data Landscape

When it comes to information there’s 2 forces at play, impacting on both pet owners and vets:

1)  There’s heaps more of it

Frontiers of knowledge are being pushed back every day: new biomedical discoveries, technologies, drugs, and occasionally a paradigm shift. To cope with this there has been a trend in specialisation, in all fields of inquiry. This is posing a problem for generalist, especially those working in isolation.

2) It’s heaps more easily accessible

Historically, details of how your doctor or vet arrived at their recommendation was buried in books, written in incomprehensible language, hidden deep in university libraries.  Nowadays, popular biomedical journalism, greater medical literacy, and the internet are starting to break down the walls that protected the information cartels that are professions. The marketing of  surgical and pharmaceutical solutions directly to consumers is also pushing this trend; owners increasingly know products by brand name..

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How do internet resources help or hinder the pet owner?

If a disease has already been diagnosed and you need more information, there are some good online resources written in street language.  So, in a way, the internet can be good for a second opinion on treatment options. If you’re clever, and good with a medical dictionary you may even outdo your specialist (‘Jedda’ Waters).

If your pet is unwell and you haven’t yet seen a vet, beware trying to diagnose it yourself with the help of the internet. Spend the fifty bucks for a consultation at least; it should narrow the scope of your information search. For those whose loved animal companion is mostly well but has mild, vague, or non-specific symptoms, reading online stories of other pet owners can be misleading.  Nebulous internet disease is recognised in man, and will start to manifest in pet owners soon enough.

Critical appraisal of online resources

A recent study of web based resources, describing the usefulness, completeness, and accuracy of information about osteoarthritis in dogs, found that 66% were consistent with conventional knowledge like that in textbooks and journals, 27% provided experimental or anecdotal reports in addition to conventional knowledge, while 7% provided misleading information. The conclusion was that, despite a majority of accurate information, the resources were ‘incomplete, of minimal use, and often considered counterproductive’. One has to question if this negative opinion was in any way influenced by the threat to professional cartels that the web represents.

Rather than dismissing web resources as universally suspect, you should look at:

1) Credibility of information

This comes down to who wrote it, when they wrote it, and how they arrived at their viewpoint. Be a wary of personal anecdotes; the bloggersphere is full of them. It’s always nice to hear a personal account of a disease that sounds strikingly similar to yours, but resonance ≠ relevance.

Look for information on professional or peer monitored sites, ideally based on groups or populations of animals, although this doesn’t guarantee it’s up to date.  Discovering the North American Medical and Surgical journal online sounds like you’re half way to a medical degree, but it’s from 1827. If your elderly poodle is diagnosed with a heart murmur and you Google it, you may arrive at the very legitimate and informative Washington State University Site, which lists all of the important medications for treatment, omitting Pimobendan, a drug recently proven to outperform others but not yet available in the US.

Be careful with material that appears sponsored as there may be commercial conflicts of interest. This can be a tough one, the Quest Pimobendan study above is sponsored by a drug company, but it’s a controlled, clinical trial.  In contrast, if I search ‘best flea and tick control’ I get this – can you work out who wrote it? And yet the tick prevention section of the Merck Manual, sponsored by the same drug company, is more balanced in it’s recommendations.

2) Relevance of information to your situation

Again, if don’t have a diagnosis, you may be wasting your time. Some diseases and treatments vary by locality. Our uniquely toxic snakes and ticks demand Australian sources of information, while some diagnostic tests, drugs or other treatments may not be available in your local area..

Conclusions
  • Don’t be put off by these pitfalls. It’s an information goldmine out there, as long as you understand the limitations.
  • Avoid over-interpreting the significance of peoples stories that sound similar to yours. There are hundreds of disease that can, to the untrained eye, or even the trained eye, appear superficially similar.
  • The internet is hopeless at diagnosing disease, but can be great for a second opinion, and possibly even sourcing cutting-edge information that your vet may not be aware of.

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